Dismantling Democracy One Voter at a Time

African Americans demonstrate in favor of a strong civil rights plank outside GOP convention hall, Chicago, Illinois, July 1960. Photo: Francis Miller/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

This past August at the Republican National Convention, Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan stated, “The right that makes all the difference now is the right to choose our own leaders.” Despite the recent victory in Pennsylvania, voter ID laws continue to threaten to disenfranchise an alarming 21 million eligible voters, something that does not echo Ryan’s patriotic affirmation. These laws require specific forms of picture identification – which are not widely used nor easily obtained. Opponents of the new legislation claim that the laws will disproportionately restrict the voting rights of African Americans, Latinos, elderly, poor, and college students.

Advocates of the strict laws claim they’re designed to prevent in-person voter fraud. But fraud prevention is a fallacy. An independent study from News21 negates the existence of in-person voter fraud.  And State Rep. Mike Turzai’s assertion that “[The] voter ID [law]… is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” only affirms that the laws are motivated by partisan politics rather than justice. These laws are dangerous because they do not protect the democratic process – they dismantle it. Voter suppression plants seeds of discouragement, instilling a sense helplessness to those most affected and lessening the civic participation that democracy should be dependent on.

Particularly vulnerable to the photo ID laws are young voters. Written-off by politicians as apathetic, young voters are traditionally undervalued in the election process. In reality, a disconnection from the political process has stemmed not from apathy but from being ignored. Politicians don’t tend to engage young

George W. Bush at his inauguration, 2001

voters or encouraged their participation. As a member of Generation Y, I can personally attest to the frustrations of participating in what seems to be a broken political process. For me, the 2000 Election was a disillusioning experience. Our introduction to politics was a spectacular mess of hanging chads and an appointed President. Intent on making the election process work for us, in 2004 we stormed the polls with an unprecedented surge of voter participation. Any hopeful delusions of a functioning democracy were shattered when Bush was re-elected by the narrowest margin in recent history.

Gen-Y has had to bear the brunt of the fallout of Bush-era politics. We’ve lost our classmates, friends, and siblings to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve graduated college with a veritable mortgage of student loans and entered an economy void of prospects.  Our parents lost their pensions when the market crashed. Our friends lost their homes in the mortgage crisis. Our young adult lives have been shaped by the policies of leaders we didn’t choose – politicians who never took us into consideration during their campaign.

But in 2008, youth participation could not be overlooked. The rising Millennials merged with Gen-Y as they settled for extended, unpaid internships in an increasingly bleak job market. In 2008, the GOP was caught off guard by the 23.1 million young voters that resolved to establish a shred of autonomy.

Voter ID laws are 21st Century voter suppression. The new legislation is unconstitutional and violates the Voter Rights Act (1965) and the National Voter Registration Act (1993).  The voter ID laws are not designed to protect democracy – they’re designed to marginalize our voices and opinions. By limiting the pool of eligible voters, our government shifts from a democracy to a plutocracy – a government that is run exclusively by the wealthy.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 1963. (Photograph by Abbie Rowe. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

In reality, individual rights in America have traditionally come from social movements where marginalized groups organize, assemble and demand their rights from the ruling class. Democratic participation isn’t limited to elections; it includes organization, petition and demonstration. To maintain our democracy, we have to act. Learn about the new laws passed in your state and be prepared on Election Day. Organize carpools, door-to-door campaigns, community chests to cover expenses, or anything else that is needed to help vulnerable voters get the necessary documents. Pay attention to your local government; note who drafted, voted for, and upheld this discriminatory legislation – and flood their mailboxes abhorring these laws. Exercise your First Amendment right by assembling outside their offices. Let them know you’re paying attention and you won’t be marginalized. And most importantly, vote on November 6th.

by Hillary Gularte

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7 Comments

  1. Analia

     /  October 10, 2012

    While I don’t know enough about voter laws to say that I wholeheartedly agree with all of your positions, I am also a Gen Y’er and I completely understand and sympathize with the sentiments that you describe. The 2004 elections were a very distinct disappointment in the “democratic” process. I remember people walking around campus in shock that despite all of the effort and attention that our generation had paid to the elections that it seemed to be for naught. We had been saddled by policies that many of us hadn’t been able to vote for in 2000 and now we would have to endure another 4 years (at least – I remember people talking about Jeb for 2008!) of failed economic and foreign policy. I also remember a sense of overwhelming relief in 2008 when we finally felt that maybe our voices could be heard and politicians would start to care about the point of view of the younger generations. I can only imagine that this feeling of marginalization is amplified exponentially for communities of color who are cut out of the voting process throughout their lifetime, not just during their youth.

    Thanks for the article, it definitely made me want to do some research on voting laws and better understand what they mean for our communities.

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  2. Meaghan

     /  October 10, 2012

    As always Ms. Gularte, you impress me with your knowledge and passion for an equal participation in our country’s political system.

    I have lived in PA over the last year and watched the Voter ID policy take shape and see the shameful debate over what should decide the accessibility of one of the fundamental rights the Constitution allows in our “democracy”.

    Although younger people were the focus of your article, and are disenfranchised due to being transient and fluid in our lives, I work with the elderly population who struggled with the proposed Voter ID law at it’s most basic level.

    The older folks I work with struggled for a number of reasons including, but not limited to:
    1.) they have an expired ID (because they do not drive, they may not remember to stay current),
    2.) are physically disabled (preventing them from going to PennDOT for a new/current ID),
    3.) are from Puerto Rico or out-of-state (therefore, not have a “valid” photo ID and/or the required birth certificate) and/or,
    4.) were born at home 70-90 years ago (therefore were not issued a birth certificate-which is standard practice when one is born in a hospital)

    Luckily, last week a judge postponed the requirement for a photo ID at the polls, but this postponement does not guarantee that justice will prevail. We have to remember all populations, young and old.

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  3. Nick L.

     /  October 15, 2012

    I can’t help but agree that voter suppression is behind the ID laws being enforced in certain states, because otherwise it is just conveniently ill-timed that elected officials from the Republican party would try to implement these laws right before the presidential election. I’m having a difficult time coming to terms with the obvious forms of suppression that exist today, and this is no exception.

    A study cited in the Wall Street Journal by the Knight Foundation found that voter fraud was alleged less than 1% of the time in the U.S. This doesn’t sound like the epidemic that state officials are making it out to be, and I wish that energy could be spent on other more important issues within the states, such as education and health care.

    This election is probably the one I’ve spent the most time following in all of my life, but if a non-issue like voted fraud keeps trumping more important topics then it will be to the discredit of our states. If having an ID were so easy for everyone, than this would be an easy solution. But it’s not and not allowing people one of their major privileges of living in this country would be a travesty.

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  4. Michaela Holmes

     /  October 18, 2012

    “Written-off by politicians as apathetic, young voters are traditionally undervalued in the election process.” This is a great observation of attitudes towards youth participation. I think elites and politicians have read the tea leafs wrong by calling us apathetic. A more accurate interpretation of our actions is a rapidly diminishing confidence in our democratic system. It is not worth the time and resources for politicians to develop campaign promises to appeal to us, because they can win without us. But what will they do when our cynicism and apathy turns into anger? We are starting to see this play out in Greece as workers protest against the government, the IMF and the EU. Spain is on the horizon. To ignore the youth, belittling our discontent to simple apathy is a grave mistake. As the US economic crisis continues and policy avoids addressing the real needs of the Gen-Y and the Millennials I see participation popping up, but it might not be the kind of contribution the elites will be happy about. I believe the future will bring a hands on and involved approach to political participation that goes beyond simply voting.

    Nice piece Hillary!

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  5. Lauren H.

     /  October 22, 2012

    The legislation looking to restrict who could vote put to vote in states such as Pennsylvania bordered on reinstating Jim Crow laws. Since these laws failed, racist conservative groups turned to intimidation tactics by putting up billboards in Black and Latino neighborhoods warning that “Voters Fraud is a Felony.” A billboard that is completely and utterly unnecessary. I agree whole heartily with this post that the only solution is to get out there and contradict the heinous messages being propagated.

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  6. Annie B.

     /  October 23, 2012

    It is truly upsetting to think that socio-economically marginalized groups are now facing the possibility of losing even their ability to vote, what has seemed like the last and only door to participation in American “democratic” politics. This overt manipulation of the law to preserve political power for the elite is almost unbelievable. I personally would rather risk having the <1% of fraudulent votes than exclude major groups of people from voting access.

    I agree that those of us with the ability to protest these new voter laws should actively do so. The New York Times has a great interactive graphic on which states these laws have gone into effect – check it out and see if you need to should send a letter to your representatives! http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/10/21/sunday-review/the-newest-voter-id-laws.html

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  7. Michelle G.

     /  October 25, 2012

    I find it really convenient that Republican’s, who are the ones backing stricter voter ID laws, are the ones who have something to gain from them, I.E. winning the electoral votes for that state. The more I learn about the election process and campaigning, the more disillusioned I become. Are there any politicians that tell the truth, and have integrity to support causes because they will contribute to the greater good? It seems that all politicians, democrats and republicans alike, have an agenda behind every statement, policy, and decision they make. Further, it is very disheartening to hear that Romney and Paul are supporting a policy that will strip these marginalized groups of one of the basic rights that all citizens of the US should participate in. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the only reason they are backing this policy, is simply to gain the votes. I know that the complaint of dishonest politicians is not something new, but the older I get the more I come to understand this sentiment, and wonder will it ever change?

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